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avicenna

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great medieval thinkers
Series Editor
Brian Davies
Fordham University
duns scotus
Richard Cross
bernard of clairvaux
Gillian R. Evans
john scottus eriugena
Deirdre Carabine
robert grosseteste
James McEvoy
boethius
John Marenbon
peter lombard
Philipp W. Rosemann
abelard and heloise
Constant J. Mews
bonaventure
Christopher M. Cullen
al-kindĪ
Peter Adamson
john buridan
Gyula Klima
anselm
Sandra Visser and Thomas Williams
john wyclif
Stephen E. Lahey
hugh of saint victor
Paul Rorem
avicenna
Jon McGinnis

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avicenna

Jon McGinnis

2010

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Oxford University Press
Oxford University Press, Inc., publishes works that further
Oxford University’s objective of excellence
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Copyright © 2010 Oxford University Press
Published by Oxford University Press, Inc.
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Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise,
without the prior permission of Oxford University Press.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
McGinnis, Jon.
Avicenna / Jon McGinnis.
p. cm.
ISBN 978-0-19-533147-9; 978-0-19-533148-6 (pbk.)
1. Avicenna, 980–1037. 2. Philosophy, Islamic—History. I. Title.
B751.Z7M4 2010
181′.5—dc22 2009016862

135798642
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper

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To Celina,
My other great passion

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series foreword

Many people would be surprised to be told that there were any great medieval thinkers. If a great thinker is one from whom we can learn today, and
if “medieval” serves as an adjective for describing anything that existed
from (roughly) the years 600 to 1500 AD, then, so it is often supposed,
medieval thinkers cannot be called “great.”
Why not? One answer often given appeals to ways in which medieval
authors with a taste for argument and speculation tend to invoke “authorities,” especially religious ones. Such invocation of authority is not the stuff
of which great thought is made—so it is often said today. It is also frequently said that greatness is not to be found in the thinking of those who
lived before the rise of modern science, not to mention that of modern
philosophy and theology. Students of science are nowadays hardly ever
referred to literature earlier than the seventeenth century. Students of
philosophy in the twentieth century have often been taught nothing about the
history of ideas between Aristotle (384–322 BC) and Descartes (1596–1650).
Contemporary students of theology are often encouraged to believe that
significant theological thinking is a product of the nineteenth century.
Yet the origins of modern science lie in the conviction that the world is
open to rational investigation and is orderly rather than chaotic—a conviction that came fully to birth, and was systematically explored and developed,
during the middle ages. And it is in medieval thinking that we find some of

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the most sophisticated and rigorous discussions in the areas of philosophy and
theology ever offered for human consumption—not surprisingly, perhaps, if
we note that medieval philosophers and theologians, like their contemporary
counterparts, were often university teachers (or something like that) who participated in an ongoing worldwide debate and were not (like many seventeenth-,
eighteenth-, and even nineteenth-century philosophers and theologians) people
working in relative isolation from a large community of teachers and students
with whom they were regularly involved. As for the question of appeal to authority: it is certainly true that many medieval thinkers believed in authority
(especially religious authority) as a serious court of appeal; and it is true that
many people today would say that they cannot do this. But as contemporary
philosophers are increasingly reminding us, authority is as much an ingredient in our thinking as it was for medieval thinkers (albeit that, because of
differences between thinkers, one might reasonably say that there is no such
thing as “medieval thought”). For most of what we take ourselves to know
derives from the trust we have reposed in our various teachers, colleagues,
friends, and general contacts. When it comes to reliance on authority, the
main difference between us and medieval thinkers lies in the fact that their
reliance on authority (insofar as they had it) was often more focused and explicitly acknowledged than it is for us. It does not lie in the fact that it was
uncritical and naive in a way that our reliance on authority is not.
In recent years, such truths have come to be recognized at what we might
call the “academic” level. No longer disposed to think of the Middle Ages as
“dark” (meaning “lacking in intellectual richness”), many university departments (and many publishers of books and journals) now devote a lot of their
energy to the study of medieval thinking. And they do so not simply on the assumption that it is historically significant, but also in the light of the increasingly
developing insight that it is full of things with which to dialogue and from
which to learn. Following a long period in which medieval thinking was thought
to be of only antiquarian interest, we are now witnessing its revival as a contemporary voice—one with which to converse, one from which we might learn.
The Great Medieval Thinkers Series reflects and is part of this exciting
revival. Written by a distinguished team of experts, it aims to provide substantial introductions to a range of medieval authors. And it does so on the assumption that they are as worth reading today as they were when they wrote.
Students of medieval “literature” (e.g., the writings of Chaucer) are currently
well supplied (if not oversupplied) with secondary works to aid them when
reading the objects of their concern. But those with an interest in medieval

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ix

philosophy and theology are by no means so fortunate when it comes to
reliable and accessible volumes to help them. The Great Medieval Thinkers
Series therefore aspires to remedy that deficiency by concentrating on medieval
philosophers and theologians, and by offering solid overviews of their lives and
thought coupled with contemporary reflection on what they had to say. Taken
individually, volumes in the series will provide valuable treatments of single
thinkers, many of whom are not currently covered by any comparable volumes. Taken together, they will constitute a rich and distinguished history
and discussion of medieval philosophy and theology considered as a whole.
With an eye on college and university students, and with an eye on the general
reader, authors of volumes in the series strive to write in a clear and accessible
manner so that each of the thinkers they write on can be learned about by
those who have no previous knowledge about them. But each contributor to
the series also intends to inform, engage, and generally entertain even those
with specialist knowledge in the area of medieval thinking. So, as well as surveying and introducing, volumes in the series seek to advance the state of
medieval studies both at the historical and the speculative level.
Nobody seriously concerned with medieval philosophy and theology,
whether done from the Islamic, Jewish, or Christian perspective, can afford
to ignore Avicenna (Ibn S ī n⎺
a). Born at the end of the tenth century in what
is now modern day Uzbekistan, Avicenna became a profound influence not
only on Islamic thinking but also on that of Jews (such as Maimonides) and
Christians (such as Thomas Aquinas). If a great thinker is one whose
thought can be assimilated and developed by people of very different intellectual traditions, then Avicenna was, without doubt, a great thinker.
In the present volume, Jon McGinnis provides a detailed introduction to
all of the issues on which Avicenna wrote. He puts Avicenna into his historical intellectual context (Greek and Islamic). He also explains how Avicenna thought on topics such as logic, physics, psychology, metaphysics,
politics, and medicine (Avicenna has often been said to be the founder of
modern medicine). Professor McGinnis aims to provide philosophers, historians of science, and students of medieval thought with a starting point
from which to assess the place, significance, and influence of Avicenna and
his philosophy within the history of ideas. He does so very well, and his
book should prove to be extremely useful to anyone concerned with medieval thinking in general, and with Islamic thinking in particular.
Brian Davies

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preface

When I first began the present work, I took as my model the excellent volumes in this series by John Marenbon and Peter Adamson on Boethius and
al-Kindï respectively. What I admired most about their works was both the
careful analysis of the philosophical arguments and the concise nature of
the texts. This seemed the right approach: One could pick up their books
and in a very short time have some genuine sense of the philosophical
thought of Boethius or al-Kindï. Moreover, unlike the concern that Marenbon
and Adamson raised about whether their figures were “great medieval
thinkers,” I had no such problem, for I think I can say with complete confidence and without prejudice that Avicenna is indeed a great medieval
thinker (especially if we understand “medieval” as strictly a chronological
designation). Thus, my task seemed relatively clear: Present the high points
of Avicenna’s philosophical system and do it concisely.
This turns out to be easier said than done. Nearly three hundred works
have been attributed to Avicenna. Moreover, even if one limits oneself to
Avicenna’s philosophical encyclopedias, he wrote no less than three (extant)
summas, whose content, organization, and presentation can at times differ
significantly. Additionally, recent scholarship has begun making a case that
Avicenna’s thought underwent an evolution, and so the problems of dating
his works (even the encyclopedias) and determining what are his “mature”
views arise. In order partly to address this last issue, I decided to focus

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primarily on Avicenna’s philosophical system as it appears in his most extensive and well-known encyclopedic work, the Cure (ash-Shif⎺
a ), albeit in
places drawing significantly on his other extant encyclopedias—particularly the Salvation (an-Naj⎺
at ), and to a lesser extent Pointers and Reminders
(al-Ish⎺
ar⎺
at wa-t-tanb¯ıh⎺
at) as well as his Canon of Medicine (Q⎺
an⎺
un f ¯ı .t-.t ibb).
Unfortunately, this meant that I gave rather short shrift to Avicenna’s
shorter specialized treatises as well as his Discussions (Mub⎺
ah . ath⎺
at) and
Glosses (Ta l ¯ı q⎺
at), even though I recognize that these works frequently
have a more fully developed presentation of certain technical and tricky
points. Also because of this self-imposed limit, I have thought it prudent
not to take up the issue of intellectual development, not because I deny that
it occurred or that it is not important, but because in the end I think that
presenting a roughly unified Avicennan system of thought as it is appears
predominantly in the Cure will be more useful for those readers who are
interested primarily in getting some initial sense of Avicenna’s overall
philosophy as well as providing a starting point for scholars who want to
explore systematic developments in his thought.
Even limiting myself to the Cure, however, presented problems, for
what one quickly discovers is that Avicenna is indeed a systematic thinker,
weaving and interlacing a few very basic concepts, ideas, and arguments
throughout a legion of diverse philosophical topics and problems. Consequently, in order to appreciate some move he makes, for example, in metaphysics, one must first understand the problem that he is addressing, which
might have arisen initially in physics or medicine. Similarly, the value of
some Avicennan notion, which might seem peculiar or even gratuitous—
such as his doctrine of the Giver of Forms, which is virtually unique to his
system—can be fully grasped only by seeing how it provides him with a
single solution to a score of seemingly diverse philosophical problems that
in fact Avicenna reveals to have a common ailment and so require a common cure. Moreover, often one cannot properly appraise Avicenna’s philosophical contribution without first understanding the historical context and
problematic to which he is responding. In short, what I had hoped to be a
relatively concise presentation of Avicenna’s philosophical system quickly
grew into a somewhat lengthy tome as I tried to provide the necessary
pieces needed to get some sense of the beautiful and, were it possible,
almost seamless mosaic that is his system. I can only hope that the present
work does justice to the systematic nature of Avicenna’s unique philosophical mind.

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Despite the need in places to give an extended discussion of Avicenna’s
own thought and context, I still wanted to keep this volume relatively short.
It is for this reason that I have not addressed the secondary literature in a
way that some might find adequate, and for this I can only beg the reader’s
indulgence. I additionally should confess that there are certain Avicennan
scholars that I have simply been reading and being enriched by since my
graduate school days, and their astute insights and observations have simply
become blended in my mind with the very thought of Avicenna himself. In
this category are those scholars who have pioneered and advanced the field
of Avicennan studies: Herbert Davidson, Thérèse-Anne Druart, Amélie
Marie Goichon, Dimitri Gutas, Ahmad Hasnawi, Jules Janssens, Michael
Marmura, and Yahya Michot. As often as not their thought has simply
become my own. So, if their names do not appear as frequently as they
ought in my notes, my only defense is to say that imitation is the sincerest
form of flattery. I genuinely owe them a great intellectual debt.
In a related vein, it is also my pleasant responsibility to acknowledge the
numerous organizations and individuals who have contributed in varying
ways to my understanding of Avicenna and the completion of this work.
Among the institutions, I would like to acknowledge, first, the University
of Missouri Research Board for providing me with financial support for a
semester off to write. Additionally, I would like to thank the Center for
International Study at UM-St. Louis for the significant travel support that
they have provided me in past years that has allowed me to present my
work on Avicenna at conferences both here and abroad. I am also very
grateful for the support of my department, which not only graciously
granted me research leaves, but also has allowed me to teach some pretty
arcane courses on Avicenna. Beyond the local level, I was blessed with two
National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships and a membership
at the Institute for Advance Study (Princeton, NJ), all of which allowed me
to focus on various aspects of Avicenna’s thought.
At the individual level, there are the numerous scholars and students
who have willingly (or perhaps not so willingly) spent countless hours talking with me about Avicenna, reading earlier drafts of chapters and papers,
attending and responding at conference presentations that I have given,
and in general just giving of themselves. I particularly want to thank Peter
Adamson and David C. Reisman whom I got to know when we were all
still graduate students and with whom I have been having ongoing dialogues since that time. I also am exceptionally grateful for the willingness of

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senior scholars—such as Idit Dobbs-Weinstein, Thérèse-Anne Druart,
Lenn Goodman, Dimitri Gutas, Jules Janssens, Yahya Michot, and Richard
C. Taylor—for listening and talking with me about Avicenna. Also, I have
been blessed by a number of scholars in my hometown of St. Louis with
whom I have been able to discuss finer points of medieval and Arabic philosophy, particularly Asad Ahmad of Washington University in St. Louis
and Eleonore Stump of St. Louis University. I was particularly pleased to
have an opportunity to teach a class jointly with Professor Stump on Aquinas
and the Arabs during which I feel that I may have learned more than anyone
else in the class. A special “obrigado” also goes out to my Brazilian colleague and friend Tadeu Verza, who meticulously went through an earlier
version of this book. His keen sight and insight certainly saved me from
making a number of errors. I further want to acknowledge the countless
number of undergraduate and graduate students who enrolled and positively contributed to courses that I have deliberately created to try out some
of the material presented in this book. It speaks highly of the genuine intellectual curiosity of the UM-St. Louis students that those courses were always
full and the questions always thought provoking. In particular, however,
I would like to note four such students for their relentless enthusiasm and
piercing questions, comments, and observations: Joe Brutto, Josh Hauser,
Stuart Reeves, and Dan Sportiello. Sue Bradford Edwards did a beautiful
job creating the map specifically for this volume. I am also grateful to Brian
Davies for providing me the opportunity to contribute a volume on Avicenna to the Great Medieval Thinkers Series, and his comments on an early
draft of this work. Finally, I want to thank my family: my wife for seeing
that I got the time to work on this project; my boys for seeing that I got
enough play time away from this project.

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contents

1. Avicenna’s Intellectual and Historical Milieu 3
2. Logic and Science 27
3. Natural Science 53
4. Psychology I: Soul and the Senses 89
5. Psychology II: Intellect 117
6. Metaphysics I: Theology 149
7. Metaphysics II: Cosmology 178
8. Value Theory 209
9. Medicine and the Life Sciences 227
10. The Avicennan Heritage 244
Appendix 1 255
Appendix 2 256
Appendix 3 257
Appendix 4 258
Notes

259

Bibliography 279
Index

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avicenna

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1

avicenna’s intellectual and
historical milieu

Historical Background: From
Athens to Baghdad
Ex nihilo nihilo fit: Nothing comes from nothing, and Avicenna and his
philosophy are no exception. Indeed, multiple influences were at work in
the formation of his thought. In this chapter, I consider a few of these influences so as to provide a general backdrop against which to situate the intellectual and political-historical milieu within which Avicenna worked.1 To
this end, I begin the odyssey that was Avicenna’s life with a brief look at the
Greek scientific and philosophical course curriculum being taught at the
Academies in Athens and Alexandria, which in turn became the standard
regimen of study for those practitioners of falsafa, that is, the Arabic philosophical tradition that saw itself as the immediate heir and continuation of
a Neoplatonized Aristotelianism. I then consider the reception and appropriation of this Greek scientific and philosophical heritage into Arabic,
which in its turn also offers an opportunity to consider the Islamic political
situation just prior to and during the time of Avicenna. In addition to the
Graeco-Arabic scientific tradition, Avicenna also took inspiration from influences indigenous to the culture in which he lived. These include, but are
certainly not limited to, the religion of Islam itself and particularly its philosophical-theological articulation (kal⎺
am), the Persian Renaissance, and of

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course mathematical, scientific, and philosophical developments that were
being done in Arabic as well. Once having provided this background, I
turn to the life and works of Avicenna himself and the political turmoil of
the region that haunted him and constantly forced him to be on the move
throughout his life.

The Greek Milieu
While Avicenna was born outside of Bukhärä in what is now modern-day
Uzbekistan in 980 of the Common Era, a significant part of his story begins
some 1,300 years earlier in Athens. For it is the fourth century BCE Greek
philosopher, Aristotle, and his works on logic, science, and philosophy that
would provide the starting point for much of Avicenna’s own unique vision
of philosophy.2 Indeed, it was the works of Aristotle—ordered and supplemented by later thinkers—that provided what might be called the school
curriculum for most philosophers working in the late Hellenistic world—
whether in the academy at Athens until it was closed in 529 CE or thereafter in the academy at Alexandria.3 Moreover, most philosophers working in
the earlier medieval Islamic period up to the time of Avicenna received
their philosophical and scientific training following this curriculum.4 Thus,
I should look at it in some detail.
The first element of the Greek Academic course curriculum in Athens
and Alexandria was logic. The logic segment began with the Isagoge of
Porphyry (ca. 232–ca. 305 CE), which, as its name implies (it literally means
“introduction”) introduces the uninitiated to certain key concepts in
Aristotle’s logic, namely, genus, difference, species, property, and accidents,
the so-called five predicables or most basic pieces of informative data from
which scientific and philosophical propositions are built. After the Isagoge,
the student took up the logical works of Aristotle himself, beginning with
the Categories, with its substance-accidents ontology, and going through his
works on deductions generally (the Prior Analytics) and scientific deductions or demonstrations specifically (the Posterior Analytics), all the way
through to the Rhetoric and Poetics, topics that were seen as part of logic’s
propaedeutic nature. (Although strictly speaking mathematics was viewed
as a theoretical science standing between physics and metaphysics, it, like
logic, was also viewed as sharpening the promising philosopher’s mind and
training him to think abstractly. Here, however, it was not Aristotle but
Euclid (ca. 325–ca. 270 BCE) and his Elements of Geometry that provided

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avicenna’s intellectual and historical milieu

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the preliminary and primary training.) The main reason for starting one’s
intellectual training with logic was that it was seen as a tool—an organon—
for undertaking the exploration of the world and/or organizing one’s findings about it, both activities that lie at the very heart of science and philosophy.
Indeed, whether one calls it “science” or “philosophy,” the goal of these
enterprises was a deeper understanding (Gk. epist⎺
em⎺
e, Ar. ilm, Lat. scientia)
of the world in which we live and our place in it. To the ancient and medieval mind, such understanding involved two criteria: one, knowing the
causal explanation for some given phenomenon, and, two, knowing that
that explanation is a necessary one (as opposed to merely being an
accidental one). Aristotle himself identifies four causes that must be discovered if one is to provide a complete causal explanation of a given phenomenon. One must identify (1) the material cause, (2) the formal cause, (3) the
efficient cause, and (4) the final cause. The matter might be thought of as
whatever has the potentiality to become a certain natural kind or be accidentally modified in some way, such as the wood that might make up a
desk, bed, chair, or the like; form is that by which something actually is the
sort of thing that it is, such as the bedlike structure that shapes and informs
the wood so that it is a bed; the efficient cause is that which explains a given
form’s coming to be in the matter in which it comes to exist, so, for example,
the carpenter, who imposes the bedlike structure on the wood; and finally,
the final cause is that end or good that the efficient cause intends from or
for the form-matter composite, such as, in the case of the bed, to provide a
comfortable and safe place to sleep. Of course, most cases of genuine scientific explanation are not as jejune as the example just given. Instead, the
whole causal structure of most scientifically interesting cases is considerably
more complex and so more difficult to uncover. Still, this was the ideal that
most philosophers sought: to understand, in a rich and complete sense, the
very causal structure of the cosmos.
To this end, Aristotle’s Physics provided the most basic and general concepts for understanding natural or physical things, that is, things that in
some way change or move owing to some internal principle. Such general
concepts include nature, motion or change, place, time, and the like. The
course curriculum follows up this general discussion of natural things with
Aristotle’s De Caelo, which is an investigation into the makeup and motion
of the heavens. The heavens were themselves thought to be of a different
material kind than the things that make up the Earth, for, to the ancient

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and medieval mind, the heavens from the Moon and beyond were thought
to involve perfectly regular circular motion, unlike the erratic, primarily
rectilinear motions—such as rising and falling—that typify the movements
here on Earth. The quite sketchy account of the De Caelo was significantly
supplemented with the astronomical works of Ptolemy (ca. 100–ca. 175
CE), and particularly his Almagest, which provided the basic planetary hypothesis (albeit modified and corrected for accuracy) up until the time of
Copernicus. After treating the heavens, the student would study Aristotle’s
On Generation and Corruption, which provides a general discussion of the
makeup of the sublunar realm with its specific emphasis on the generation
and corruption of those things that we find around us. This general discussion was in turn followed by an investigation of inanimate natural things,
which Aristotle treated in his Meteorology. The natural sciences conclude
with Aristotle’s psychological and biological works. It was Aristotle’s De
anima that provided the most basic and general concepts associated with an
investigation of living things, such as the soul (Gk. psuch⎺
e , Ar. nafs, Lat.
anima), which was viewed as simply that principle of animation that explains why living things perform those functions unique to them as living
things. A study of the De anima was then followed by the parva naturalia of
Aristotle, which is a series of shorter works on nature, that deal with increasingly more specific topics in the life sciences. As with astronomy, much
of Aristotle’s biological and anatomical works were later supplemented and
sometimes corrected by the voluminous writing of the second-century physician Galen (ca. 129–199 CE), particularly for those students who would
go on to pursue medicine. Still, having said that, the Galenic corpus (and
indeed medicine more generally) never fully came to be incorporated into
the ancient and medieval course curriculum in the way, say, Ptolemy’s astronomical writings, were.
Next on the curriculum was the science of metaphysics, literally “that
which is after physics.” Here, the student would read both Aristotle’s Metaphysics and additionally the writings of Plato. In fact, at least during the late
antique period, it was primarily the Platonic corpus, especially as read
through the lens of Plato’s later interpreters such as Plotinus (204–270 CE)
and Proclus (411–485 CE), that provided the core texts for the student of
metaphysics. In part owing to this Platonic, or more exactly Neoplatonic,
understanding, metaphysics, which Aristotle had envisioned as a science of
being qua being, was reenvisioned as theology or the study of immaterial
beings. In fact, as will become clear when I consider Avicenna’s metaphysical

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system,5 it was only when he rediscovered that Aristotle’s Metaphysics was
intended to provide a science of being qua being, which subsumed theology
as one of its proper subtopics, that he came to understand and fully appreciate Aristotle’s contribution to this science.
Even then Avicenna remained impressed by at least two Neoplatonic
elements that were to feature prominently in his own metaphysical system
as well as those of medieval philosophers writing in Arabic more generally.
These were the notions of the One and emanation. The Neoplatonic One,
which loosely might be viewed as the divinity, is absolutely and completely
simple. In fact, the One is the principle or cause of all unity in the cosmos.
As such, it is also the source of being or existence, for already as early as
Plato and Aristotle, a thing’s being or existence was viewed as closely linked
with the unity inherent in it. Here, just think of a cloud of chalk particles,
which neither is nor exists as a piece of chalk, but only becomes one insofar
as the particles have been brought together to form a unified whole. Consequently, given that the One is the principle of unity coupled with the notion
that to be or to exist is to be unified, the One must also be the ultimate principle of being and existence itself. As for the One itself, it is beyond or above
being and existence. So much so, argued the Neoplatonists, that the very
existence or being of the cosmos overflows or emanates from the One: first
in the form of Intellect, from which then emanates the World Soul—that
is, the animating principle of nature and the cosmos, analogous to the soul
in a human—and the world then emanates from the World Soul.
Ironically, despite the influence that Neoplatonists such as Plotinus and
Proclus played on the formation of the falsafa tradition, Aristotle was most
often credited with their innovations while they stood in the proverbial
shadows. This is in no small part due to the fact that in the medieval Arabicspeaking world the two primary works in which much of the Neoplatonic
metaphysical machinery was laid out were falsely ascribed to Aristotle.6
Thus, for example, the Arabic redaction of large sections of Plotinus’s Enneads IV–VI went under the title The Theology of Aristotle (Uth⎺
ul⎺
ujiy⎺
a),
while a redaction of Proclus’s Elements of Theology—which in Arabic was
titled the Pure Good (al-Khayr al-mah.d. ) and subsequently became the Latin
Liber de Causis (“The Book of Causes”)—was believed to come from the
pen of Aristotle. In addition to these two pseudepigrapha, numerous Neoplatonic philosophers commented on the Aristotelian corpus and read into
Aristotle’s text Neoplatonic doctrines. These commentaries were in turn
translated together with the works of Aristotle into Arabic. Given these

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false ascriptions and the (Neoplatonic) commentary tradition that grew up
around Aristotle’s works, it is no wonder that many subsequent thinkers in
the medieval Islamic world thought that Aristotle actually authored these
Neoplatonic innovations. The net effect of this confusion was that by the
time that the Arabic Aristotle reached Avicenna, he had been thoroughly
Neoplatonized.
The study of metaphysics, whether Aristotelian or Platonic, was then
followed by ethics, which drew upon Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as well
as a number of Plato’s dialogues and the ethical writings of the Stoics, such
as the Enchiridion of Epictetus (ca. 35–ca. 135 CE). Ethics, as Aristotle himself says at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics,7 is itself subordinate to
the science of politics. Here, it was not Aristotle that provided the basis of
political studies but again Plato, both in the Greek- and Arabic-speaking
worlds. In fact, only the first (or at most the first two) books of Aristotle’s
Politics were translated into Arabic, whereas it seems that both Plato’s
Republic and Laws were available in Arabic translation (or at the very least
they were thoroughly summarized and explained in Arabic). This fact is
notable in itself since, in general, most of the Platonic dialogues were not
translated into Arabic, which may perhaps be owing to the high literary
and even poetic style of Plato’s writings, which makes it often difficult, if
nigh impossible, to capture in translation. Instead, most frequently only
philosophical synopses of Plato’s works were available. As for why Plato’s
Republic may have appealed more to the medieval Muslim intellectual than
Aristotle’s Politics, the most obvious reason is that Plato’s Philosopher-King
can with relative ease be interpreted as either a Prophet-Lawgiver, such as
Muh. ammad, or an ideal Caliph, as in Sunni Islam, or an Imam, as in Shiite
Islam.
This brief summary should hopefully provide the reader with a sense of
the basic curriculum that was being taught at the end of the classical period
of Greek philosophy. In general, and to summarize, the works of science
and philosophy covered by the curriculum included texts on logic, natural
philosophy (such as physics and biology), mathematics and astronomy, metaphysics, and then readings in practical philosophy (such as ethics and politics). Moreover, it was this curriculum that would be translated into Arabic
and make up the educational basis for those thinkers, such as Avicenna,
working in the falsafa or Arabic philosophical tradition. Thus, I should
now turn to the Arabic translation movement and the general scientific and
philosophical environment it created within the medieval Islamic world.

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The Arabic-Islamic Milieu
Certainly, one of the great achievements of the human intellectual spirit
was the Arabic translation movement.8 Over the course of about one hundred years, virtually the entire Greek scientific and philosophical corpus
was either translated or summarized into Arabic, and it was certainly in
large part owing to the presence of this body of knowledge in Arabic translation that made possible Avicenna’s own unique philosophical synthesis.
The movement, which roughly occurred during the tenth century, had its
intellectual center in Baghdad, the newly established religious and political
capital of Islam. A brief account of the history leading up to the translation
movements and key figures in it will offer one a glimpse into the sociopolitical situation immediately prior to Avicenna’s own times, and so it is to
that history that I now turn.
After the death of Muh. ammad in 632, the political and religious leadership of Islam passed through a number of Caliphs, literally “successors.”
The first four of these successors—the so-called R⎺
ashid⎺
un or rightly
guided Caliphs—had their power base in the ij⎺
az on the Arabian
Peninsula. They were then followed by the Umayyad Caliphs, who were
centered in Damascus and remained in power in the East from 661–750.
In a series of battles between 749–750, Ab⎺
u l- Abb⎺
a s (r. 749–754)
wrenched control from the Umayyads, setting up his own dynasty, the
Abb⎺
a sids, which, at least in name, continued until the mid-thirteenth
century. It was Ab⎺
u l- Abb⎺
a s’s immediate successor, al-Mans.⎺
u r (r. 754–
775), who, on 30 July 762, laid the first foundation stone for the new
Abb⎺
a sid capital, Baghdad, and it would be at Baghdad—situated where
the Tigris and Euphrates rivers run close to each other—that the Arabic
translation movement would find its headwaters. Here, Greek, Persian,
and even Indian sciences mixed with the study of Arabic grammar and
literature, or adab, as well as Islamic law ( fiqh), and Islamic speculative
thought (kal⎺
a m) all coming together to form falsafa, the Arabic-Islamic
philosophical tradition of which Avicenna would be one of its most
significant representatives.
Even while consolidating his power, al-Mans.⎺
u r was also initiating the
translation of foreign philosophical, scientific, and literary works, including
Sanskrit astronomical tables, Persian tales and fables, and, of course, Greek
texts such as Ptolemy’s Almagest and the logical writings of Aristotle. Still, it
was under the Caliph al-Ma m⎺u n (r. 813–833) that the Arabic translation

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movement truly hit its stride, and the first Arabic philosopher, al-Kindī (ca.
800–ca. 870), emerged.9 The contribution of al-Kindī to the development of
the falsafa tradition comes from no less than three fronts. First, he assisted
in the translation of Greek scientific and philosophical texts, not, it would
seem, by himself actually undertaking any translation from the Greek, but
by advising about the content and assessing the philosophical sense of the
translations as well as suggesting works that should be translated. Second,
he also ardently supported the so-called foreign sciences against certain
Muslim theologians and intellectuals who were challenging their usefulness
and value. Thus, in a very real way he helped to ensure the continuation and
preservation of the Greek scientific and philosophical tradition within the
medieval Islamic world. Third, and arguably most important, al-Kindī began to appropriate and to formulate the newly translated Greek learning
into an Arabic-Islamic philosophical worldview, and, while perhaps not as
well known as the philosophical systems of his successors, such as al-F⎺
ar⎺
abī
and Avicenna, al-Kindī ’s philosophical vision nonetheless did set the agenda
and present modes of argumentation that would come to typify falsafa.
Also at about the time that al-Kindī was at his peak, so too was the great
Nestorian Christian translator unayn ibn Ish.⎺
aq (809–877) and his circle,
which included his son Ish.⎺
a q ibn unayn (d. ca. 910), a nephew ubaysh
and disciple Ī sá ibn Yah. yá. The output of this handful of men was immense, and had to number many hundreds of translated works if not more.
( unayn himself translated around a hundred texts by Galen alone.) In
addition, they revised many earlier cumbersome translations both for readability and content and helped to establish what would become the standard Arabic philosophical vocabulary. It was thus primarily these few men
who provided the basic textual sources that would become the groundwork
for falsafa. While the translation movement certainly continued on after
unayn and his group by such thinkers as the Nestorian Christian Abu

Bishr Mattá (d. 940) and the Jacobite Christian Yah. yá ibn Adī (d. 974),10
much of the subsequent translation activity merely involved revising already existing translations.
In addition to the inestimable value of all of these translators in preserving and continuing Greek scientific and philosophic thought, many of these
translators also contributed to the development of falsafa in their own right,
themselves writing numerous independent medical and philosophical
works and commentaries. Indeed, many of these translators, along with
other luminaries of the time, were part of the circle of philosophers known

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collectively as the Baghdad Peripatetics, which was a loose affiliation of
Aristotelians who would meet to read and discuss philosophy together. Because of their own philosophical and scientific interests, these thinkers, in
conjunction with translating the Aristotelian corpus, as well as other works,
often expounded and questioned that corpus too; so, for example, unayn
produced a series of sixteen questions on Aristotle’s cosmological work, the
De Caelo, while Ab⎺
u Bishr Mattá and Yah. yá ibn Adī commented on
Aristotle’s logical, physical, and metaphysical writings.
Arguably the most outstanding commentator and philosopher among
the Baghdad Peripatetics was al-F⎺
a r⎺
a bī (ca. 870–ca. 950). This was certainly
Avicenna’s opinion, who in general considered the Baghdad Peripatetics to
be rather pedestrian thinkers, again with the notable exception of al-F⎺
a r⎺
a bī .
While Avicenna’s assessment of the rest of these philosophers is open to
question, his high praise of al-F⎺
a r⎺
a bī is certainly warranted. Al-F⎺
a r⎺
a bī ’s
renown in logic was so complete that it earned him the moniker “the second teacher” (al-mu allim ath-th⎺
a n¯ı ), second that is only to Aristotle himself. In addition, to commenting and expounding on the logical works of
Aristotle, al-F⎺
a r⎺
a bī also made an epitome of Aristotle’s Physics as well as
writing a small treatise on the intentions of the Metaphysics (F¯ı aghr⎺
ad.),
which proved to be invaluable to Avicenna’s own understanding of that
science; al-F⎺
a r⎺
a bī ’s interests in Aristotle even included a long commentary
on the Nicomachean Ethics, which unfortunately is no longer extant.
Still, perhaps al-F⎺
a r⎺
a bī ’s greatest contribution to the history of falsafa
was that he was a system builder. Unlike so many of the earlier philosophers working in Arabic, who contented themselves with merely commenting on the works of earlier Greek philosophers, al-F⎺
ar⎺
abī wanted to
organize the huge body of knowledge available to him into a synthetic
whole, showing the dependence of all things on a First Cause, God, followed by the hierarchy that exists within the created order, and the place of
humans as well as their moral and/or political obligations within that hierarchy. Two Alfarabian synthetic works are his The Principles of the Opinions
of the Inhabitants of the Perfect State (Mab⎺
adi ⎺
ar⎺
a ahl al-mad ¯ı na l-f⎺
ad.ila) and
The Principles of Existing Things (Mab⎺
adi al-mawj⎺
ud⎺
at), both of which outline a metaphysical system in which the sciences of physics, psychology, ethics, and politics all find their place.11 Avicenna would carry on this spirit of
system building—but at an encyclopedic level that does not merely present
the various philosophical and scientific theses but strenuously argues for
and defends those positions.

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While up to this point I have stressed the Greek philosophical and scientific traditions to which Avicenna would be heir, his worldview also included
purely Islamic and Arabic elements as well. The most obvious influence is
that of Islam itself as represented in the Qur ⎺
a n and the sayings of the
prophet Muh. ammad (sing. h. ad¯ı th). While the Qur ⎺
a n never aspires to be a
philosophical textbook that lays out arguments in syllogistic fashion, it,
nonetheless, makes a number of claims that fall within the domain of
subjects that ancient and medieval philosophers treated. Such claims include that God exists and has certain divine attributes, as, for example, being alive, knowing, powerful, and having a will; that there is but one God;
that God created the cosmos; that there is an afterlife; and, of course,
numerous dicta concerning how one should act (ethics) and interact with
others (politics). No Muslim philosopher could simply ignore these claims;
rather, he needed to incorporate or reinterpret them into his philosophical
system. In fact, Avicenna frequently goes to great lengths to reinforce the
idea that his philosophical system is really nothing more than the theoretical
articulation of Islam itself.
Additionally shaping the world that surrounded Avicenna would have
been the various schools of Islamic law ( fiqh) and Islamic dialectical or speculative discourse (kal⎺
am), both of which provided their own interpretation of
Islam, and sometimes interpretations quite at odds with the falsafa tradition.
More like Judaism than Christianity, Islam frequently prizes right practice,
or orthopraxy, more highly than (or at least as a necessary element of) right
belief, or orthodoxy. In fact, in theory all one needs to believe to be a Muslim
is the Shah⎺
ada, or profession of faith: “There is no god but God (Allah), and
Muh. ammad is the messenger of God.” Consequently, the lawyer (faq¯ı h) and
judge (q⎺
aài) who interpret divine law (Shar¯ı a) as revealed in the Qur ⎺
an and
sayings of the prophet have always had a more important place in the Islamic
world than the theologian. At least among Sunni Muslims, four legal schools
(sing. madhhab), all of which were considered equally valid, had emerged by
Avicenna’s time: These were the anif ī , M⎺
alikī , Sh⎺
af i ī , and anbalī schools.
Whatever the school it was often the job of lawyers to extend the application
of the law to those cases not explicitly dealt with by the Shar¯ ı a. As a result
Muslim lawyers developed rules of (analogical) reasoning (qiya
⎺s) that were in
places quite different from Aristotelian logic. It would in fact seem that Avicenna received his first taste of logic from studying law, for he mentions in his
autobiography that while still a young adolescent he had become quite adept
at legal questioning and refutation.

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avicenna

Among the so-called Islamic sciences, however, it was kal⎺
am that exercised
and challenged those working within the falsafa tradition most.12 While kala
⎺ m
is frequently translated as “theology” or more expansively as “Islamic speculative theology,” it is as much of a philosophical worldview as falsafa was.
Whereas falsafa favored the logical system of Aristotle, the mutakallim⎺
un (that
is, proponents of kal⎺
am) saw Aristotelian logic, at least initially, as little more
than Greek grammar, and thus preferred their own Arabic grammatical categories and analogical reasoning. While kal⎺
am preferred an ontology of atoms
and accidents, falsafa favored continuous magnitudes, that is, ones that are
potentially divisible infinitely. Despite obvious differences between the two
traditions, both were nonetheless interested in roughly the same sets of issues
and questions and their answers frequently even shared common intuitions.
In this respect perhaps the greatest difference between the two was in their
own perceptions of themselves and each other: The proponents of falsafa saw
themselves as adopting, adapting, and generally extending the Graeco-Arabic
philosophical and scientific tradition, while the advocates of kal⎺
am envisioned
themselves as promoting a way of thought intimately linked with the Arabic
language and the Islamic religion.
By the time of Avicenna there were broadly two general schools of kal⎺
am:
the Mu tazilites and the more traditionally inclined Ash arites (there were
additionally the M⎺
aturī dī s who fell loosely between the two, or, if anything,
inclining slightly toward the Ash arites). The Mu tazilites rejected a literal
reading of the Qur ⎺
an, and maintained that it had to be read through the lens
of what logic and reason require. Thus, for instance, while the Qur ⎺
an ascribes a number of attributes to God, such as having sight, hearing, power,
will, and others, the Mu tazilites argued that if taken at face value these ascriptions would undermine divine unity, uniqueness, and simplicity (tawh.¯ ı d);
for if there are distinct attributes in God and each one of them is divine, then
there would be multiple divine things, all equally deserving of being a divinity. Remember, however, that the Muslim confession of faith adamantly asserts that there is but one God. For the same reason, the Mu tazilites argued
that the Qur ⎺
an, despite its claims for itself, could not literally be the word of
God but had to be created;13 for if it were not created, then it too would have
to be eternal and so worthy of being a god. Another doctrine in need of reinterpretation, or so the Mu tazilites believed, was that of divine determinism, which reserved all power and all causality for God. Here, the Mu tazilites
argued that if God were to cause every act including human acts of volition, such as to sin or to submit to God, then divine justice would

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be jeopardized; for surely God could not punish or reward us based upon
what God himself does. While the political heyday of the Mu tazilites was
during the Caliphs al-Ma m⎺
un and his immediate successors, who tried to
impose Mu tazilism as religious orthodoxy, it was during Avicenna’s own
time in the work of Abd al-Jabb⎺
ar (935–1025) in Rayy, whom Avicenna most
likely knew,14 that Mu tazilism reached its full intellectual maturity, even if
politically it had waned.
Even then Mu tazilism never seemed to have a broad theological appeal,
and thus in response to what was viewed as the Mu tazilites’ overly rationalistic interpretation of Islam, certain traditionalists staunchly maintained a
quite literal understanding of the Qur ⎺
an even in the face of what reason
purportedly demanded. Although this traditionalist movement is most frequently associated with the name of Ahmad ibn H. anbal (780–855), it would
be the more moderate vision of al-Ash arī (d. 935) that would come to dominate theology, at least in Sunni Islam. For unlike Ibn H
. anbal, who completely
distrusted reason and logic, al-Ash arī had originally been trained as a
Mu tazilite and appreciated the value of reason and logic, particularly in refuting the deficiencies he found in the Mu tazilite system; however, unlike
the Mu tazilites, al-Ash arī also thought that there were limits to the application of reason beyond which it simply could not go. Those limits, he argued,
were reached when it came to things divine. Concerning these issues one
simply had to rely on what was revealed about God in the Qur ⎺
an. Thus, alAsh arī affirmed those attributes ascribed to God as well as the Qur ⎺
an’s being the uncreated word of God. Also, while God does in fact will and create
every event here on Earth, we nonetheless, according to al-Ash arī , acquire
(kasb) responsibility for those actions, good or bad, that are done through us.
These doctrines, maintained al-Ash arī , simply have to be accepted without
asking how (bil⎺
a kayf ). By the time of Avicenna, falsafa too had come under
the criticism of Ash arite theologians, and particularly by the judge and very
able theologian al-B⎺
aqill⎺
anī (d. 1013), whose critique of the philosophers
would only be rivaled by the great Ash arite theologian al-Ghaz⎺
alī (d. 1111)
some hundred years later.
While Ash arite theology came to dominate in Sunni Islam, Mu tazilite thought never completely died out among Shiite intellectuals, who
always seemed somewhat more receptive to philosophical speculation. Additionally, one form of Shiite Islam, namely, that of the Ism⎺
a ī lī s, would
have a profound effect on the intellectual climate of Avicenna’s time. By the
beginning of the tenth century the Ism⎺
a ī lī leader Ubayd-All⎺
ah al-Mahdī

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avicenna

(910–934) conquered a stretch of North African and founded the F⎺
a t. imid
dynasty. Sixty years later the F⎺
a t. imid army took control of Egypt and
founded their new capital, Cairo, from which they sent missionaries
throughout the Abb⎺
asid caliphate proclaiming their Ism⎺
a ī lī theology,
which was replete with intellectually subtle philosophical argumentation.
One of the tools used by these Ism⎺
a ī lī missionaries was a series of philosophical treatises, over fifty in all, that were written collectively by a group
of men who referred to themselves simply as the Brethren of Purity (ikhw⎺
an
a.s -.s af⎺
a ). The Treatises of the Brethren of Purity wove Ism⎺
a ī lī theology together with Aristotelian and Neoplatonic elements as well as Neopythagorean thought. Avicenna himself testifies to knowing this Ism⎺
a ī lī
thought and quite possibly these treatises as well, although he is also quick
to add that he was not convinced by their arguments.
Finally, perhaps the greatest source of inspiration for Avicenna would
have been the general air of scientific and intellectual inquiry that permeated the environment in which he found himself. Thus, the young Avicenna
undertook a series of correspondences with the greatest polymath and comparative scholar of the time, al-Bī r⎺
unī (973–c. 1050). Avicenna was also an
immediate contemporary of the greatest optical theorist in the medieval
Islamic world, Ibn al-Haytham (965–1039) of Cairo, with whom Avicenna
shared a similar optical theory. Moreover, in addition to knowing the traditional Greek mathematical sciences of geometry and arithmetic, Avicenna
was also versed in Indian arithmetic and the new science of algebra, both of
which he incorporated into the mathematical sections of his encyclopedic
work, the Cure, in a way that set him apart from other philosophers working before him.15 He was a contemporary of the great Persian poet Firdawsī
(c. 939–1020), who through his epic The Book of Kings virtually singlehandedly revived Persian as a language of high literature and culture, while
Avicenna’s own The Book of Sciences (D⎺
aneshn⎺
ame-yi Al⎺
a ¯ ı ) was the first
work of philosophy written in Persian following the Islamic conquest of
the East. In short, Avicenna was very much a product and part of his time,
and it is to the specifics of his life that I now turn.

Avicenna’s Life and Works
Like that of few others (and even fewer philosophers), Avicenna’s life has
all the elements for a best-selling novel: There is political intrigue, battles,

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imprisonment, harrowing escapes, alleged poisonings, drinking parties,
and (if one is to believe Avicenna’s biographer) lots of sex. One knows these
details about Avicenna’s life because at the bequest of one of his students,
al-J⎺u zj⎺
anī , Avicenna dictated a brief autobiography of his early life, and
thereafter al-J⎺u zj⎺
anī chronicled the events from the time of their meeting
up to his master’s death.16

Avicenna’s Early Life
About fifty years before Avicenna’s birth the Abb⎺
asid Empire began to collapse, even if the Abb⎺
asids retained the titular title “Caliph” long thereafter. In 945 Shiite B⎺u yids captured Baghdad and made the Abb⎺
asid Caliph,
al-Mustakf ī (r. 944–946), a virtual puppet ruler. The fall of Baghdad was followed by the ever-increasing fragmentation of the empire with various
generals, petty lords, and the like carving it up into a number of local autonomous states, albeit often ostensibly showing homage to the Abb⎺
asid
Caliph. One such dynasty was that of the S⎺
am⎺
anids who controlled the region of Khur⎺
as⎺
an. It was under the last great S⎺
am⎺
anid Amī r, N⎺
u h. ibn
Mans.⎺
u r (r. 976–997), that Avicenna’s father served as governor of the
village of Kharmaythan, one of the more important villages around
Bukh⎺
ar⎺
a. While we are only told that his father was a man from Balkh, one
of the four capitals of Khur⎺
as⎺
an, two sources tell us that his mother’s name
was Sit⎺
ara.
The couple made their home in the small village of Afshana, which lay
at the outskirts of Kharmaythan, where in 980 they were blessed with their
first child, Ab⎺
u Alī l- usayn ibn Sī n⎺
a, the “Avicenna” of Latin medieval
fame. Sometime after the birth of Mah. m⎺u d, Avicenna’s younger brother of
five years, the family moved to Bukh⎺
ar⎺
a proper, where teachers of both the
Qur ⎺
an and Arabic literature were found for the young Avicenna. He was
clearly something of prodigy, for he recounts that by the age of ten he had
memorized the entire Qur ⎺
an as well as many works of Arabic literature.
He also had even begun studying both Indian arithmetic with a local vegetable seller and Islamic law with the anaf ī jurist, Ism⎺
a īl az-Z⎺
ahid. At
the age of ten he was given a private tutor, one Ab⎺
u Abd All⎺
ah an-N⎺
atilī ,
with whom he first began the philosophical course curriculum outlined
earlier. Even before that, however, Avicenna had had a taste of philosophical thought, for he tells us that he would listen in as Ism⎺
a īl ī missionaries
spoke about the soul and intellect with his father, and, while he understood

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avicenna

their arguments, he was not convinced by them, even though, he says, both
his father and brother were.
Still, it was with an-N⎺
atilī that Avicenna began his formal philosophical
training, and it was an-N⎺
atilī who encouraged Avicenna’s father to steer his
son toward only academic pursuits. The teacher and pupil began with Porphyry’s Isagoge, and in fact Avicenna even impressed his tutor by independently verifying the definition of genus as that which is predicated of many
species in answer to the question, “What is it?” doing so in a way that was
completely new to an-N⎺
atilī . Avicenna then went on and completed the
course on logic, reading the primary and secondary texts mostly on his own,
since apparently his tutor simply could not grasp the subtleties of logic. Also
with an-N⎺
atilī , Avicenna read Euclid’s Elements and Ptolemy’s Almagest, although again according to Avicenna it was in fact he who taught the teacher
and an-N⎺
atilī who was the student.
At some point after completing the Almagest, an-N⎺
atilī departed from
Bukh⎺
ar⎺
a and Avicenna took up reading natural philosophy and philosophical theology (Il⎺
ahī y⎺
at) by himself as well as continuing his study of law and
beginning the study of medicine. He tells us that at this time he was sixteen
and that he spent the next year and half returning to logic and all parts of
philosophy. Now, however, he studied these sciences in earnest, compiling
for himself notecards on which he formalized all the arguments he came
across, listing the premises, conclusions, and implications. During this time
he remarks that he never slept an entire night through, but, like a child
with a comic book, he would pour over philosophical texts by candlelight,
and even when sleep did overtake him he would see the philosophical problems in his dreams. He continued in this way until the sciences of logic,
natural philosophy, and mathematics were so deeply rooted within him
that he understood them, he says, as far as was humanly possible.
Having reached this point in his self-education, Avicenna took up reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics; however, he confesses that the intent of that
work completely eluded him. In fact, he read the Metaphysics forty times to
the point of memorizing it and yet he could make no sense of the text, and
so he gave up on it altogether as being simply incomprehensible. As luck
would have it, however, at about the same time that he was giving up on the
Metaphysics, he happened to be in the bookseller’s quarter where a man
came up to him with al-F⎺
ar⎺
abī ’s The Aims of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.17 While
Avicenna initially dismissed the small five-page treatise, the seller was persistent, saying that he was selling the book on consignment and that the

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owner was desperate for money and that he would take a mere three
dirhams.18 Avicenna reluctantly agreed, and once home he quickly read
through the short work. Almost immediately, he says, the intention of the
Metaphysics became clear to him and he was so grateful that the very next
day he gave much in alms to the poor in order to show his gratitude to God.
While studying these philosophical sciences, Avicenna, as I noted, had
also taken up medicine, which he mastered in a very short time, claiming
that it is one of the easier disciplines. His study of medicine even extended
to caring for the sick so as to gather practical clinical experience that could
not be acquired through mere books. His knowledge of medicine must
have been quite good, for he says that distinguished doctors would read
medicine under him even though he was still a very young man. There
would seem to be some element of truth to this boast, for at about the age of
seventeen and a half Avicenna was called in to advise a number of court
physicians about an illness from which the Amī r N⎺
u h. ibn Mans.⎺u r was
suffering.
The advice must have been helpful, since N⎺u h. ibn Mans.⎺
u r recovered
and took Avicenna into his service. While at court, the young Avicenna
asked permission to browse the palace library. The library consisted of
many rooms, each one of which was dedicated to a different science. Moreover, each room was filled with chests of books, many of which, Avicenna
tells us, he had never heard of before or saw thereafter. From then until he
was eighteen he read and mastered these books, claiming that upon reaching that point of his life he hit upon the basic elements of his own philosophical system, and while his understanding of those elements may have
matured over time, he claims that he added nothing substantively new to
them. By the age of twenty-one, Avicenna’s knowledge of the sciences had
certainly become locally well known; for he was asked to write a compilation of these sciences for one Ab⎺
u l- asan Ar⎺u d. ī , which he gave the title
Prosodic Wisdom (al-h. ikma l- ar⎺u d.ī ya), a pun on ar⎺
u d. ī’ s name, which means
“prosodist” (the work also goes under the name Compendium). The lawyer
Ab⎺
u Bakr al-Baraqī also asked Avicenna to comment on the books of science that he had read, the result of which was the twenty-volume The Sum
and the Substance (al- ⎺
a . s il wa-l-mah..s⎺u l); he also wrote for al-Baraqī The
Saintly and the Sinful (al-Birr wa-l-ithm).
Sometime after that—reports have it in the year 1002 at the age of
twenty-two—Avicenna’s father died, and Avicenna took one of the administrative posts in Bukh⎺
ar⎺
a. By this time S⎺
am⎺
anid power had all but

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avicenna

vanished from the region, and so Avicenna tells us, in what would
become a leitmotif of his life, that “necessity forced him to leave” Bukh⎺
ar⎺
a
for Gurg⎺
anj in Khwarizm, now the modern town of Kunya Urgench in
northern Turkmenistan. In the garb of a lawyer, he was presented to the
Amī r Alī ibn Ma m⎺u n (r. 997–1009) and was found a position at a modest
monthly salary.
Before or around 1012, necessity again forced Avicenna to flee, now for
the court of Amī r Q⎺
ab⎺u s (r. 978–1012) in Jurj⎺
an on the Caspian Sea. His
flight took him through Nas⎺
a, B⎺
award, ⎺u s, Samanq⎺
an, and J⎺
ajarm at the
extreme limits of Khur⎺
as⎺
an before ultimately reaching his destination. Legend has it that the necessity in question was the Sult.⎺
an Mah. m⎺
ud of Ghazna
(r. 998–1030), the virtual founder of the Turkish Sunni Ghaznavid dynasty,
whose lands extended to nearly all of the present territory of Afghanistan
and the Punjab.19 The story goes that Mah. m⎺
ud requested that Amī r
Ma m⎺
un send to him a number of scholars to adorn the new Ghaznavid
court. The scholars in question included al-Bī r⎺u nī and Avicenna among others. While al-Bī r⎺
unī and most of the others (reluctantly) agreed to go, Avicenna feared the Sult.⎺
a n’s ruthless treatment of anything that even hinted
at unorthodoxy. Thus, he and a Christian scholar, Ab⎺
u Sahl al-Masī ī , with
whom Avicenna was apparently quite close, chose to flee. The story continues that on the fourth day the two were caught in a sandstorm, becoming
completely lost in the desert, and that al-Masī h
. ī finally died of heat exposure. Avicenna himself carried on, traveling through the various cities
noted until finally reaching Jurj⎺
an. While nothing precludes the tale’s harrowing flight across the desert, a matter of dates suggests that it may not
have been in order to flee the clutches of Mah. m⎺u d. For al-Bī r⎺u nī , again one
of the scholars who did agree to go to the Ghaznavid court, puts the date of
his departure at 1017, five years after the death of Q⎺
ab⎺u s, who died in the
winter months of 1013. Whatever the case, the flight was for naught, for in
1012, when Avicenna would have arrived in Jurj⎺
an, the Ghaznavids had
already seized Q⎺
ab⎺u s and imprisoned him in one of his own fortresses,
where he died.
Again on the run, Avicenna fled north to Dihist⎺
an near the border of
Khwarizm, where he fell gravely ill. Upon recovering from his illness,
Avicenna must have felt that the situation was safe enough to return to
Jurj⎺
an, and so he did. It was here, at the age of thirty-two, that he met his
disciple Ab⎺
u Ubayd al-J⎺u zj⎺
anī , who would remain by Avicenna’s side for
the rest of his master’s life chronicling the events that he witnessed.

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21

Avicenna’s Later Life
Avicenna’s time in Jurj⎺
an, which could not have been more than three years,
was apparently uneventful although productive. One Ab⎺
u Muh. ammad ashShī r⎺
azī , of whom we know very little other than that he had a great appreciation for the sciences, purchased a house for Avicenna to live in. It was
here that Avicenna composed his Middle Summary on Logic (al-Mukhta.s ar
al-awsa.t al-man.t iq), The Origin and Return (al-Mabda wa-l-ma ⎺
a d), Complete Astronomical Observations (ar-Ar.s⎺
a d al-kullı-ya), The Summary of the Almagest (Mukhta.s ar al-Majistī ), and many shorter treatises. Most notably,
perhaps, it was during his time in Jurj⎺
an that Avicenna began his monuan⎺
un f ı¯ .t -.t ibb). Avicenna’s Canon distills into a
mental Canon of Medicine (Q⎺
relatively small handbook the medical knowledge of the Greeks, such as
the voluminous works of Galen, and the new discoveries of physicians
working in the Arabic-speaking world, such as Abü Bakr ar-R⎺
azī (ca.
864–ca. 930), as well as Avicenna’s own contributions to medicine.
It would seem that some time before 1015 the lure of a rich patron
finally enticed Avicenna to leave Jurj⎺
an for the mountain country (ard.
al-jabal), or what was known at the time as Persian Iraq, which makes up
the central regions of modern Iran. Here Avicenna would remain for the
rest of his life traveling between, sometimes fleeing from, the region’s major cities such as Rayy, outside of modern-day Tehran, Qirmī sī n, which is
modern Kirmanshah, Hamadh⎺
an, and Is. fah⎺
an. In this first instance, the
lure came from Rayy, the largest of the mountain country capitals, to where
Avicenna and his disciple moved when the nominal ruler of that city, the
B⎺
uyid Majd ad-Dawla (ca. 997–1029) was suffering from melancholia or
what we would call major depression—which at the time was identified
with an excessive buildup of “black bile” (Gk. melan [black] + chole
[bile]).
Avicenna presented letters, presumably commending his medical expertise,
to the actual power of the city, Majd ad-Dawla’s mother (d. 1028), who
simply went by the title “the Lady,” and was then taken into her service.
Sometime around 1015, the Sult.⎺
a n Ma m⎺u d of Ghazna—whom I mentioned when recounting Avicenna’s flight to Jurj⎺
an—did in fact seem to
have requested that Avicenna be sent to him so as to grace his court.
Avicenna, feeling justifiably threatened by these advances, left Rayy first
for Qazwī n, west of Rayy, and then for Hamadh⎺
an in the midwest part of
Iran at the foothills of the Alvand Mountain, where it would appear that he
once again took up service for the Lady.

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avicenna

While in Hamadh⎺
an, Avicenna became acquainted with its ruler,
the B⎺
uyid Shams ad-Dawla (r. 997–1021), who was suffering from colic.
Avicenna was able to cure him successfully and thereafter became one of
his boon companions. In fact, Avicenna even accompanied the Amī r on one
of his military expeditions. Upon returning to Hamadh⎺
an, the Amī r made
Avicenna his vizier. Unfortunately, troops, apprehensive of the new vizier
and their standing, rebelled against Avicenna, surrounding his house, ransacking his goods, throwing him in prison, and even demanding that Shams
ad-Dawla execute him. The Amïr refused to have Avicenna killed, but was
willing to banish him, which in the end involved nothing more than
Avicenna’s hiding himself away in an acquaintance’s home for forty days.
Upon suffering another bout of colic, Shams ad-Dawla called upon his
old friend to cure him again, apologizing profusely, and even restoring
Avicenna to the position of vizier. Avicenna agreed and this time he seems
to have been accepted.
Between 1016 and 1021, while still in Hamadh⎺
an, al-J⎺
uzj⎺
anī asked his
master to comment on the works of Aristotle, and although Avicenna
refused, he did agree to set out what he considered to be correct among all
of the sciences. The result was that he began writing the “Physics” of his
monumental work the Cure (ash-Shif⎺a ), while also continuing to work on
the Canon. The Cure was envisioned as an encyclopedia of science and
philosophy consisting of all the theoretical sciences: nine books on logic,
eight on natural philosophy, four on mathematical sciences, and one on
metaphysics, whose final section also provides Avicenna’s treatment of
issues ethical and political. In the Cure Avicenna wove together the Greek
course curriculum and indigenous Islamic influences seen in the previous
sections so as to form an intellectual tapestry that was Avicenna’s own
unique philosophical system.
While serving as Shams ad-Dawla’s vizier, Avicenna apparently spent
his mornings writing and then spent the rest of the daylight hours attending the Amī r with matters of state. In the evening he would meet with his
students, one reading from the newly completed pages of the Cure
and another from those of the Canon, with Avicenna explaining and answering questions. The lessons were then followed by an almost certainly
riotous symposium, replete with singers of varying classes, and wine, all
with which Avicenna and his students busily occupied themselves. As a
somewhat lurid aside, since most professional singers at this time were
female slaves, and slave girls were viewed as being at their master’s sexual

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avicenna’s intellectual and historical milieu

23

disposal,20 Avicenna’s soirees probably involved a good bit of “adult entertainment,” which would be consistent with al-J⎺u zj⎺
anī ’s own observation that Avicenna had an insatiable sexual appetite.
Sometime around 1021, Shams ad-Dawla set out on another military
expedition, but was again overcome by his old colic as well as other ailments. He died in that year while in retreat. Power ultimately past to his
son Alī ibn Shams ad-Dawla, who, at the request of his troops and the
court, asked Avicenna to continue on as vizier. Avicenna, apparently not as
impressed with the son as he had been with the father, delicately refused
the offer and then began secret negotiations with the governor of Is. fah⎺
an,
Al⎺
a ad-Dawla (d. 1041/42). During this time Avicenna secluded himself in
the home of a druggist and busied himself with writing the Cure, completing over the course of two days an entire outline of the work, which he then
began fleshing out, writing at a startling rate of some fifty folio pages a day.
During this time he completed, with the exception of the book on animals
(corresponding with Aristotle’s biological works), the rest of the Cure’s
books on natural philosophy, its metaphysics, and even started writing the
sections on logic. Becoming suspicious of Avicenna’s communiqués with
Al⎺
a ad-Dawla, the political powers in Hamadh⎺
an instigated a search for
him, whereupon finding him they imprisoned him in the castle of Fardaj⎺
an
some fifty miles away, where he remained for four months, during which
time he wrote The Guidance (al-Hid⎺
aya) and a philosophical allegory Alive
son of Awake (H
a

yy
ibn
Yaq
z
a
n

).

.
.
As it so turns out, Al⎺
a ad-Dawla attacked Hamadh⎺
an in 1023, bringing
that city to its knees and forcing the prince and his vizier, who had had
Avicenna imprisoned, to flee to the safety of Fardaj⎺
an. Upon Al⎺
a adDawla’s withdrawal from Hamadh⎺
an, the prince and vizier returned,
bringing Avicenna with them, now redoubling their efforts to entice him
into their service. During this time in Hamadh⎺
an, Avicenna stayed with a
Shiite friend, to whom he dedicated a work on Cures of the Heart (al-Adwiya
l-qalb-ı ya)—a work whose opening sections provide a wonderful account
and practical suggestions for dealing with certain mental or emotional disorders, which were thought at that time to be more closely associated with
the heart than the brain—all the while Avicenna also continued to work on
the logic of the Cure.
Apparently the situation in Hamadh⎺
an became unbearable, and so
disguised as a Sufi along with his brother and al-J⎺u zj⎺
anī and two slaves, Avicenna and his party sneaked out of that city heading southeast for

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avicenna

Is. fah⎺
an and the court of Al⎺
a ad-Dawla. Upon reaching Is. fah⎺
an, Avicenna
was greeted warmly, provided with a well-furnished place to stay in the city’s
district of the dome, and finally, al-J⎺
uzj⎺
anī tells us, the master received the
respect that he so richly deserved. While in Is. fah⎺
an, Avicenna completed the
logical works of the Cure, as well as the mathematical books: geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music (which, with its emphasis on harmonics and
proportions, was included within the mathematical quadrivium). Thus, only
the biological work of the Cure remained to be written. Avicenna finally
completed it while accompanying Al⎺
a ad-Dawla on a campaign against the
city of S⎺
ab⎺
ur Khw⎺
ast, to the west of Is. fah⎺
an and south of Hamadh⎺
an. Since
Al⎺
a ad-Dawla undertook multiple expeditions against S⎺
ab⎺
ur Khw⎺
ast, this
would put the completion of the Cure at 1027, the traditional dating,21 or
perhaps as late as 1030, for which there is also good evidence.22 Also during
this campaign, Avicenna composed another, shorter, encyclopedia of philosophy and science, the Salvation (an-Naj⎺
at), which while drawing upon many
of Avicenna’s earlier works—such as The Shorter Summary on Logic, which
he had written while still in Jurj⎺
an—in places also shows evidence of being
every bit as, if not more, mature than the thought of the Cure. Other works
Avicenna wrote while in Is. fah⎺
an include: the Fair Judgment (al-In.s⎺
a f ), and,
though only fragments are extant, al-J⎺
uzj⎺
anī tells us that it was originally
twenty volumes treating approximately 28,000 questions derived from Aristotelian and pseudo-Aristotelian texts;23 a Persian philosophical encyclopedia
for his patron Al⎺
a ad-Dawla, which has come to be called the Book of Science for Al⎺
a ad-Dawla (D⎺
aneshn⎺
ame-yi Al⎺
a ¯ ı ), and was the first philosophical work written in Persian following the fall of the old Persian Sassanian
Empire; Pointers and Reminders (al-Ish⎺
ar⎺
at wa-t-tanb¯ı h⎺
at), which is yet
another philosophical encyclopedia that merely provides key premises
and main philosophical conclusions, while frequently leaving the actual
construction of the arguments to the reader (while it is likely that this
work was completed when in Is. fah⎺
an, an earlier Hamadhā n date has also
been suggested);24 the single volume work, the Easterns (al-Mashriq¯ı y⎺u n),
which like Fair Judgment exists only in a fragmentary form, and which
purportedly gave Avicenna’s own philosophy without commenting on
the tradition; and finally, while in Is. fah⎺
an Avicenna completed the Canon
of Medicine.
Far from spending all of his time in Is. fah⎺
an with ink and paper at hand,
Avicenna also quickly became one of the Amī r’s confidants and a member
at court. Indeed, every Friday the Amī r held a literary salon that included

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25

scholars who were experts in all the arts and sciences and by whom, alJ⎺u zj⎺
anī brags, Avicenna was never outclassed. Although, he relates, there
was one evening when an expert in the Arabic language, Ab⎺
u Mans.⎺
u r alJabb⎺
an, openly criticized Avicenna’s knowledge of Arabic, protesting that,
while Avicenna was a philosopher and physician, his remarks about philology showed that he was not literate in that subject. Loath to accept such a
criticism, Avicenna began plotting a very elaborate joke on the philologist.
He immersed himself in the study of philology, Arabic grammar, and rare
words, sending as far away as Khur⎺
as⎺
an for all the best works on the subject. At the end of three years he had mastered the subject such that few
were his equal. He then wrote three odes in different styles of Arabic, brimming with rare and arcane words, which he had bound together and had
the volume purposefully distressed so as to look aged. Avicenna then
brought the Amī r in on his little joke and asked him to present the volume
to al-Jabb⎺
an with the story that the Amī r had found the work while hunting in the desert and could al-Jabb⎺
an explain it to them. Al-Jabb⎺
an was
nonplussed as he tried to work his way through the lines and began inventing things to cover up his ignorance, at which point Avicenna chimed in
quoting philological authorities by page and line to explain the odes. Realizing that he had been made the butt of a joke, al-Jabb⎺
an publicly apologized to Avicenna.
Together with his love for a good laugh—admittedly at somebody else’s
expense—Avicenna was a bon vivant, enjoying all the pleasures that life
has to offer whether intellectual or physical. I have noted that he held
drinking parties well into the night, preferring food, drink, and companionship over sleep. When asked about his excesses, Avicenna purportedly
said, “God, Who is exalted, has been generous concerning my external and
internal powers, so I use every power as it should be used.”
One can, however, only burn the proverbial candle at both ends for so
long. Eventually Avicenna’s lifestyle caught up with him, and probably
sometime around 1034 he found himself afflicted with colic; for it was most
likely in this year that the Ghaznavid army fought Al⎺
a ad-Dawla at Karaj,
forcing Al⎺
a ad-Dawla to retreat to I
dhaj south of Is. fah⎺
an. Not wanting to
be left behind, Avicenna tried to cure himself of his intestinal complaint by
administering enemas to himself, sometimes as many as eight times in one
day. The result was that he developed ulcers and even began suffering seizures. His situation only deteriorated when, wanting to be done with the
colic, he ordered a small measure of celery seed to be added to the enema to

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avicenna

expedite its effect. One of the physicians assisting him, either intentionally
or unintentionally (al-J⎺u zj⎺
anī is not sure), added more than twice the
amount that Avicenna had prescribed, and the result was that it caused
Avicenna to suffer internal bleeding. Avicenna’s already declining condition was then further exacerbated when a slave, who, al-J⎺
uzj⎺
anī alleges,
was stealing from Avicenna, overdosed with opium an electuary that Avicenna was taking to help with the seizures. Avicenna collapsed and had to
be carried back to Is. fah⎺
an on a stretcher once it was safe to return.
At home, Avicenna continued to administer to himself, but no sooner
was he able to walk than he presented himself to Al⎺
a ad-Dawla ready for
political life again. Moreover, he also once again took up his old habits of
sensual excess. Al-J⎺
uzj⎺
an¯ı says that Avicenna never completely returned to
his former state of health but spent the next four or so years suffering relapses followed by partial recoveries. In late spring of 1037, Al⎺
a ad-Dawla
set out for Hamadh⎺
an with his old friend accompanying him, when Avicenna was once again seized by his recurring complaint. By the time they
reached Hamadh⎺
an, Avicenna was all but a corpse, and realizing that death
was inevitable, he ceased treating himself. Avicenna passed from this world
at the age of 58 in Hamadh⎺
an where one can still visit his tomb, a monument to one of the truly great intellectual spirits.

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2

logic and science

Introduction
Logic for Avicenna is primarily a tool for scientific discourse and discovery.
It can perform its function, however, only if there is some connection
linking the objects of logic, namely, the universal predicables such as, for
example, genus, difference, and species, with the objects of which the practitioner of a given science has immediate access, namely, concrete particulars and their causal interactions. Establishing that there is a close association
between the objects of logic and science is a necessary part of Avicenna’s
philosophic enterprise, inasmuch as Avicenna requires that the premises
used in logic and the conclusions derived from them accurately capture the
way that the world itself is. In this chapter, I focus primarily on how Avicenna envisions the relation between logic and the sciences. Thus, I do
not deal with the technical points of Avicenna’s syllogistic, that is to say,
Avicennan logic considered as a formal language, except insofar as that is
necessary for understanding how Avicenna sees logic as a tool of science.1
One technical point, however, is worth noting here about Avicenna’s system of logic: “Every proposition in Avicenna’s system is either temporalized or modalized; there is no proposition which directly captures the
non-modalized assertoric proposition used in introductory accounts of the
categorical syllogistic.”2 So, for example, an assertoric statement such as

27

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avicenna

“(Every) human is a rational body” is only the implicit way of stating
“(Every) possible human is necessarily a rational body.” This fact, I believe,
reflects Avicenna’s conviction that the basic ontological structure of the
world is inherently modal. In other words, everything, from the lowliest
mote to the divinity itself, is either necessary or possible in itself, a point that
I turn to in depth in chapters 6 and 7.
For now, however, I begin by sketching what might be thought of as
Avicenna’s metatheory of logic, which underlies his philosophy of science
and theory of knowledge ( ilm). Here I consider how Avicenna supports his
scientific realism and the theoretical foundation that he provides for the
relation between logical notions (such as genus and difference) and the objects of scientific inquiry. Additionally, I look at the role that Avicenna has
logical notions play in the scientific enterprise. After a brief consideration
of how Avicenna divides the sciences, I turn to two of the most important
logical tools that the medieval scientist and philosopher used, namely, definitions and demonstrations, and their relation to causes. In the final section
of this chapter, I take up Avicenna’s discussion of some of the empirical
methods employed by the scientist for acquiring knowledge of definitions
and the first principles of demonstrations, at least as those methods appear
in his logical works.

The Relation between Logic and Science
When one considers the relation between logic and science, one may view
logic as standing to science in the way that language, or perhaps better syntax, stands to a body of thought. Avicenna certainly seems to endorse such
a view when he writes, “The relation of this field of study [that is, logic] to
inner reflection, which is called ‘internal reasoning’ is like the relation of
grammar to the explicit interpretation, which is called ‘external reasoning,’
and like the relation of prosody to the poem” (Introduction, I.3, 20.14–16).
In this respect logic is a tool (⎺
ala) that guarantees a certain precision in scientific reasoning and even safeguards science against the introduction of
hidden assumptions and formal fallacies.
Considered as such, logic, for Avicenna, is essential to a proper and
scientific understanding of our world; however, in order fully to appreciate logic’s role in the scientific enterprise, one must first understand what
Avicenna means by “scientifically understanding a thing.” “Science” or

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“scientific knowledge or understanding” translates the Arabic ilm, which
itself is the common Arabic translation of the Greek epist⎺
em⎺
e. For Avicenna, scientific knowledge involves two aspects: first, conceptualizing
(ta.sawwur) what is meant when either a term, premise, or even inference
or syllogism is presented, and second, verifying (ta.sd¯ı q, literally “truthmaking”) what one is conceptualizing.3 Avicenna describes these two aspects thus:
Something is scientifically understood (yu lamu) in two respects: One of
them is that it is conceptualized only, such that if it has a name and [the
name] is uttered, then what [the name] means is exemplified in the
mind, regardless of whether it is true or false, such as when “man” or
“do such and such” is said, for when you attend to the meaning of that
which you are discussing, then you have conceptualized it. The second
is verification together with the conceptualization, and so, for example,
when you are told that “all white is an accident,” then from this not only
do you conceptualize the meaning of this statement, but also you verify
that it is such. As for when you have doubts whether or not it is such, you
still have conceptualized what is said (for you do not have doubts about
what you have neither conceptualized nor understood); however, you
have not verified it yet. All verification, then, is together with a conceptualization, but not conversely. In the case of what this [statement]
means, the conceptualization informs you that [both] the form of this
composite [statement] and that from which it is composed (like “white”
and “accident”) occur in the mind, whereas [in] verification, this form’s
relation to the things themselves occurs in the mind, that is, [the form in
the mind] maps unto (mu.t⎺
abiqa) [the things themselves] (Introduction,
1.3, 17.7–17).

Conceptualization, on the one hand, simply involves understanding the
meaning or intention (ma ná ) of a word or a statement or even how statements work together to form an inference, with no reference to whether
that term refers, or the statement is true, or the inference is sound. In verification, on the other hand, not only does the conceptualization of the
meaning of a word or form of a statement or inference occur in the mind,
but also the object of the conceptualization must map onto or “correspond”4
with the thing itself.
Bearing in mind Avicenna’s distinction between conceptualization and
verification let me tentatively distinguish the discipline of logic from the
sciences: Logic and the objects of logic, such as genus, difference, and

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species (the so-called second intelligibles), focus primarily on that aspect of
knowledge that concerns conceptualization and the objects of
conceptualization,5 whereas science and the objects of science, such as extramental things and their causal relations, concern that aspect of knowledge that involves verification.
As for what the objects of conceptualization are, Avicenna mentions
definitions, definite descriptions, exemplars, and the signs or terms of things
(Introduction, I.3. 18.5). Most frequently, these objects of conceptualization
are composite in nature. Thus, one first must conceptualize the simple or
singular terms from which the more complex is composed in order to understand fully the sense of the term or statement in question (Introduction,
I.4, 21.1–22.12). For Avicenna, following Porphyry’s Isagoge, the most logically basic or simple terms are universals represented by the genus (jins),
difference ( fa.s l), species (naw ), property (kh⎺s
a..s a), and accident ( arad.), the
so-called predicables.6 So, for example, when one conceptualizes the term
“human” one might recognize that what is meant by it is a composite of the
simpler or more logically basic concepts, “animal” and “rational.” Here,
“animal” represents the genus, namely, that which is common to several
individuals varying in species (Introduction, I.9), and “rational” represents
the difference, namely that which specifies among the generically common
things what kind of animal human specifically is (Introduction, I.13). Jointly,
the genus and difference constitute the definition of the species “human.”
Similarly, one might conceptualize that humans have the capacity to laugh,
where “the capacity to laugh” is a property of humans in that it is something
unique to humans even though it does not make up part of the definition of
“human.” Also, one might conceptualize that “walking” or “black” might
belong to humans, where “walking” and “black” are neither constitutive of
the definition of human nor unique to humans, but are accidents of, that is,
something nonessential to, a human. The propositions composed from the
singular terms falling under these universal divisions are in turn constructed
into syllogisms or, ideally, demonstrations, which are then used within the
sciences.
Although later I shall need to clarify how Avicenna believes that the
universal predicables—genus, species, difference, property, and accident—
as well as the propositions, and then syllogisms composed from them, relate
to the extramental world, let me now explain how he considers them as
they exist in conceptualization and how the conceptualization of them is
related to logic. To do this I must first consider a topic that might initially

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seem to have more to do with metaphysics than logic, namely, essences
(m⎺
ah¯ı y⎺
at), a topic, let me hasten to add, that is a recurring theme throughout Avicenna’s thought. Still, since Avicenna himself introduces essences in
his logical works in order to explain the relation between logic and the sciences, I consider this topic here as well. In his Introduction to the Cure,
Avicenna writes about essences:
The essences of things might be in the concrete particulars of the things
or in conceptualization, and so they can be considered in three ways.
[One] is the consideration of the essence inasmuch as it is that essence
without being related to one of the two [ways] of existence [that is, either
in the concrete particulars or conceptualization] and whatever follows
upon it insofar as it is such. [Two] it can be considered insofar as it is in
concrete particulars, in which case certain accidents that particularize its
existing as that follow upon it. [Three] it can be considered insofar as it is
with respect to conceptualization, in which case certain accidents that
particularize its existing as that follow upon it, as, for example, being a
subject and predicate, and also, for example, universality and particularity in predication, as well as essentiality and accidentality in predication,
for being essential and being accidental are not in things existing in the
external [world] by way of predication, nor is something [in the external
world] a logical subject (mubtada ) and a logical predicate (khabar), nor a
premise, a syllogism, and the like (Introduction, I.2, 15.1–8).

For now I concentrate on Avicenna’s view of essences as they exist in conceptualization. He tells us that when one conceptualizes the essences of
things, those essences acquire certain accidental features inasmuch as they
are conceptualized, and that these accidental features need not belong to
those essences considered either in themselves or as existing in concrete particulars. One of the things that accidentally occurs to essences during conceptualization is that they may be conceptually divided into a part that is a
logical subject and a part that is a logical predicate; for example, in the
definition of “human,” one might consider “human” as the logical subject
and “rational animality” as something predicated of that subject. Moreover,
Avicenna tells us that during conceptualization essences may be considered
as something universal or something particular, although, as will be seen,
essences considered in themselves are, for Avicenna, paradoxically neither
universal nor particular.
For Avicenna, logic, at least inasmuch as it is relevant to the various sciences, is related to essences precisely insofar as it considers those essences as

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existing in conceptualization together with the accidental features that
accrue to essences when they are conceptualized. Avicenna, thus, continues:
Now, when we want to think discursively (natafakkara) about things
[that is, syllogistically] and know them, we must necessarily take them in
conceptualization, in which case they necessarily happen to have states
that involve the conceptualization. So, we must necessarily consider the
states that they have in conceptualization, especially when we want to
come to know things by way of discursive reasoning that were unknown,
where that [proceeds] from things that are known. Inevitably, things are
unknown and likewise known only in relation to the mind. Now, the
state and accident that they happen to have so that we [can] move from
what is known about them to what is unknown about them is a state and
accident that they happen to have with respect to conceptualization, even
if what belongs to them in themselves is also something existing together
with that. Thus, it is necessary that we know these states: their quantity,
quality, and how they are considered in this accidental [way]. . . . This
kind of investigation is called the science of logic, namely, the investigation into the aforementioned things inasmuch as from them it leads to
making the unknown known as well as what is accidental to them inasmuch as they are only like that (Introduction, I.2, 15.9–16.12).

Logic, inasmuch as it is a tool of the sciences, concerns essences along with
the accidental features that follow upon their being conceptualized, and
then ordering what is known in such a way that one can move from prior
knowledge to a new knowledge about something, which was originally not
known. Logic considered as a science in itself, however, is primarily interested in the accidental features that occur as a result of being conceptualized, such as being a logical subject or predicate, universal or particular, and
the like. That is because it is the accidental features following upon conceptualization that allow logic to classify things under one of the five aforementioned universal predicables; to construct definitions and propositions
from those predicables; and then to arrange those propositions so that they
form valid syllogisms that allow one to move from the knowledge conveyed in those propositions to conclusions that convey something that had
previously been unknown.
I have now considered how Avicenna envisions logic’s relation to conceptualization, but this relation raises the deeper question for him about
how logic is related to scientific knowledge in its fullest sense, that is,
knowledge involving both conceptualization and verification. To put the

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same point slightly differently, the question is “How do the objects of
logic—namely, second intentions, which at least for Avicenna are purely
mental objects—relate to the objects that the sciences investigate, namely,
things in the world and their causal interactions?”7 In fact, the problem is
even more acute; for Avicenna is a realist inasmuch as for him the goal of
philosophical and scientific inquiry is ultimately a type of necessary certainty (yaq¯ın) about the way the world in fact is.8 Thus, if one cannot be
certain that the objects of logic and the conclusions derived from logic actually capture the way the world really is, then logic, for all the precision in
reasoning it might bring, would fail to be an adequate tool for doing science. If logic is to play a role in the scientific enterprise, as Avicenna believes
that it does, then there must be some bridge, or common element, linking
the universal predicables treated in logic with the concrete particulars of
immediate experience.
In order to answer this deeper question concerning the relation of logic
and science, Avicenna returns to his account of essences. Recall that for
him essences exist either in conceptualization or in concrete particulars.
Inasmuch as an essence exists externally in concrete particulars, it has accidents different from those that follow upon its existing in conceptualization. More precisely, these accidents, at least in the case of the physical and
natural kinds that we see around us here on Earth, follow upon the essence’s existing in matter,9 and by existing in matter, that essence becomes
the essence of some concrete particular, as, for example, the essence of human that belongs to me. Among the accidents that follow upon an essence’s
existing in matter are such things as, for example, walking, being white,
having this particularly bodily configuration, coming to be at this particular place and time, and the like. In this respect, the essence of human, for
example, that exists in individuals such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle
exists as a particular owing to the material conditions necessary for the
existence of those individuals. Perhaps the most significant difference
between the essence existing in matter and the essence existing in the
mind, and so conceptualized, is that in the latter case the essence exists as
something universal or general, whereas in the former case it exists as
something particular or individuated.
In addition to essences’ being considered as they exist either in concrete
particulars or in conceptualization, Avicenna also believes that they can be
considered merely in themselves. Considered in themselves, essences for
Avicenna are neither universal nor particular, but potentially one or the

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other. Thus, Avicenna says, “The animal in itself is a certain thing (ma ná )—
whether as something existing in concrete particulars or something conceptualized in the soul—but in itself it is neither general nor particular” (Introduction, I.12, 65.11–12). Despite the apparently paradoxical nature of claming
that essences considered in themselves are neither universal nor particular,
Avicenna believes that to assert otherwise leads to absurdities. To make his
point he presents the following dilemma.
If [animal] in itself were general [that is, universal]—so that animality is
general because it is animality—then necessarily no animal is an individual; rather, every animal is something general. Again, if the animal—
because it is animal—were an individual, then only a single individual
[animal] would be possible, namely, that animal that animality requires,
and it would be impossible that any other thing is an animal. (Introduction, I.12, 65.12–16)

The first horn assumes that animal is something essentially universal, that
is to say, animal in itself would be the animality common to many animals.
As such, being an animal would apply only to many animals, and so paradoxically being an animal could not apply to any animal taken singularly.
In other words, given the assumption that animal in itself is necessarily and
essentially universal and so holds only of many animals, and no animal
taken individually is many animals, no individual animal could essentially
be an animal, which Avicenna takes to be absurd. The second horn assumes
that animal in itself is essentially particular and as such is not applicable to
many, just as being the individual Socrates is not applicable to many. As
such, being an animal would apply only to a single individual and anything
other than that individual animal would not be an animal essentially, which
again Avicenna finds absurd. Therefore, he concludes that to make animal
in itself either universal or particular leads to absurd consequences. Thus,
animal in itself cannot be either universal or particular. Since the argument
can be generalized to any essence considered in itself, essences in themselves are neither general nor particular.
In fact, it is precisely because essences in themselves are potentially both
universal and particular that logic is applicable to the scientific enterprise.
That is because logical reasoning, which involves mental existents, maps
onto scientific understanding, which involves extramental existents, precisely because the objects of logic and science are partially identical for
Avicenna inasmuch as the essences of things considered in themselves are

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